The Obama White House pulled out all the stops this week to indulge the «insecure» Persian Gulf Arab oil sheikhdoms. The assurances lavished by President Obama on his guests – with meetings in the Oval Office and later at the presidential retreat Camp David – may assuage Arab feelings of insecurity in the short-term. Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir enthused at the conclusion of the first US-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit, describing it as «historic».
But there seems little doubt that the bitter relations that have been festering between the Saudi-led GCC and its main Western patron in Washington will continue to deepen and corrode the «extraordinary relationship» that Obama tried to talk up.
That festering resentment towards Washington among the Saudi rulers especially may play out in an escalation of the Yemen crisis by the Saudis as a calculated way to sabotage the P5+1 nuclear deal with Iran. The Saudis see that potential deal as a sell-out by the Americans. The temptation will be for them to force Washington to take sides over a ramped-up war in Yemen, which they are trying to portray – without any evidence – as an «Iranian backdoor» to the Arabian Peninsula. An escalation of the conflict in Yemen and provocations to Iran, such as attacks on its humanitarian aid convoys, may draw Tehran into an open war. That result would scotch any P5+1 nuclear deal, which is what the Saudis really want.
Against a backdrop of tensions that have been simmering for months, this week the American president tried his best to pander to his Arab guests. Obama referred to a friendship «dating back to Franklin Roosevelt» when the US first embarked on a strategic pact with Saudi Arabia’s founder Ibn Saud in 1945; Obama talked of his country and the Persian Gulf Arab sheikhdoms being the «cornerstone» of regional security; and he promised a new defence partnership «to face external aggression» with «fast-tracking of American weapons transfers».
Nevertheless, despite the grandiloquence, Obama fell short by not unveiling a written military treaty between the US and the Arab sheikhdoms. A new formal defence pact was what the Gulf rulers had been demanding ahead of the US-GCC summit this week.
Days before the summit opened, an editorial in the pan-Arab Asharq Al-Aswat newspaper put it starkly to Obama: «Actions speak louder than words.» The paper, which reflects conservative Saudi thinking, urged the Obama administration to enshrine a binding military pact with the Gulf states. Adverting to the underlying mistrust, the editorial said «without written guarantees, it would be easy for the US to contradict what it has agreed to only verbally».
Following the US-GCC summit, the London-based Financial Times conveyed the shortfall in Arab expectations from the «historic» meeting: «The US has offered its Gulf allies new military assistance to deal with potential missile attacks and cyber threats from Iran but stopped short of the broader security guarantees that some of the countries were looking for.»
Obama had invited the Gulf leaders to a «special» summit following the signing last month of the nuclear framework accord between Iran and the P5+1 Group in Switzerland. The Americans knew that their Gulf client-regimes were not happy about the initial nuclear deal, and so the summit this week at Camp David was meant to put them at ease over Washington’s intentions toward Iran. The Persian Gulf Arab sheikhdoms – espousing Wahhabi or rightwing Sunni Islam – view Shia Iran as their nemesis. The GCC, for example, was formed in 1981, only two years after the Iranian Revolution of 1979.
The Arab rulers must have been signalled in advance that the US was not going to deliver on their demands for a fully-fledged military pact; notable leaders pulled out at the last moment from attending the summit with Obama this week. Of course, there were claims on both sides that the no-show of Saudi Arabia’s King Salman was not a «snub». But it’s hard to see how his absence could be construed as anything else. A spokesman for the Saudi king said he was occupied with overseeing a «humanitarian ceasefire» in Yemen – even though no such truce came into effect this week. Of lesser import, but no less indicative of Arab chagrin, was Bahraini King Hamad’s decision to skip Camp David for a horse show at Britain’s Windsor Castle in the company of Queen Elizabeth.
Of the six Gulf Cooperation Council members, only Kuwait and Qatar sent heads of the state to Obama’s Camp David confab. In addition to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, also missing at the summit were the rulers of the United Arab Emirates and Oman, both said to be in «ill-health».
In short, the Gulf monarchs are peeved with Washington. This peevishness partly stems from what they perceive as American hesitation over a more militaristic policy on regime change in Syria. When Obama backed down on his «red line» for military intervention in Syria at the end of 2013 over the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Assad government, the Saudis in particular were livid at what they saw as American dithering to pursue regime change full-throttle.
Then, even worse from the Saudi viewpoint, we saw the US move to engage diplomatically with Iran over the decade-old nuclear dispute. If a final P5+1 deal is implemented at the end of next month that could lead to the lifting of Western-imposed trade and financial sanctions on Iran, or at least partially.
This outcome of sanctions relief is what is really vexing the Saudis and their closely aligned Persian Gulf neighbours. Officially, the Saudis are saying that they fear that a nuclear deal at the P5+1 may still give Iran the scope to clandestinely develop a nuclear weapon sometime in the future.
Unofficially, it may be surmised that this is not the real Saudi concern. They know that any nuclear accord will be so tightly conditioned with technical restrictions that the Iranians have no chance of weaponising their nuclear program. The Iranians have also consistently said they have no intention of building a bomb out of religious ethics, articulated time and time again by the country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.
What the Saudis and the other Gulf Arab rulers are concerned about is that the sanctions relief that may come with a nuclear settlement will boost Iran’s regional position, from the development of its already prodigious economy and from the normalised interaction with neighbouring countries.
The Gulf Arabs are claiming that Iran will use this anticipated regional growth in its influence to sow more destabilisation and terrorism in other countries. That’s rich, of course, coming from the Wahhabi House of Saud and its acolytes who have been fuelling Al Qaeda-linked terrorists in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Libya over the past four years.
Obama indulged this Arab obsession with Iran as a «state sponsor of terrorism» when he said ahead of the US-GCC summit: «Iran clearly engages in dangerous and destabilising behaviour in different countries across the region. Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism… the Gulf countries are right to have concerns.»
For its part, Iran responded angrily to Obama’s rhetoric, saying that it was «hypocritical» and aimed at «appeasing» Arab despots.
Obama’s indulgent rhetoric aside, the telling upshot is that Washington did not go as far as integrating the Gulf Arab states into a formal military alliance with the US, as they had demanded.
A White House spokesman described such a treaty as «too complex» for the Middle East. What that translates into is that it is too complex an arrangement to sell to the other American client-regime – Israel, which has an ironclad US commitment to always have a military edge over its neighbours, even if they are pro-Western puppets, as in the Gulf sheikhdoms.
The danger is that the perennially insecure Saudi rulers will view Obama’s shortfall on a full military pact as a further sign of treachery, whereby Washington is intending to undercut them by doing a political deal with Iran at the P5+1 forum.
What the Saudis and the other Arab monarchs fear as «Iranian destabilisation» is the destabilising effect of a relatively democratic government in Iran being able to pursue normal relations with the region, without being continually painted as a pariah. A nuclear deal at the P5+1 would give Iran space to develop normally in the region. But that dynamic is anathema to the Persian Gulf monarchies, who rule with an iron-fist over cowering subjects. Those subjects may be more inclined to agitate for the greater democratic freedoms that are available to Iranian citizens. This is the «destabilising» effect of Iran that the Saudi rulers and their Arab allies fear most, not the much-hyped concerns of «Iranian-inspired subversion».
The Saudi-led military attack on Yemen is a case in point. The operation, which began on March 26, is said to be in response to «Iranian-backed Houthi rebels» taking over the country. Again, there is negligible evidence to substantiate this contention. Iran and the Houthis deny any such link, although Tehran has afforded diplomatic support and is sending humanitarian aid to the crisis-torn country.
But it seems significant that the Saudi-led Arab coalition – comprising the GCC monarchs, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and North Sudan – began bombing Yemen one week before the signing of the P5+1 nuclear framework accord in Lausanne on April 2.
It is arguable that the Saudis opted to launch a war in Yemen – embellished with bombastic claims of «Iranian subversion» – precisely in order to undermine the P5+1 negotiations.
Washington has so far paid lip-service to Saudi claims of Iranian malfeasance in Yemen and the Pentagon has given military support to the Arab coalition bombing that country.
However, that commitment from Washington may not be enough to satisfy the Saudi apprehensions over the possible nuclear agreement with Iran. That Obama declined to meet Arab demands this week for a full military umbrella comprising US and GCC forces may only fuel their chagrin and mistrust even further.
Escalating the war in Yemen may be the Saudi option of trying to force Washington’s hand over Iran.
As the Asharq Al-Aswat newspaper noted, with a tone of petulance: «The US wants to have its cakes and eat it. It seeks to have distinguished relations with the Gulf and Iran at the same time.»
In other words, for the intransigent, insecure Persian Gulf monarchs, there is not an inch for any accommodation with Iran, no matter how incipient that move toward accommodation may be.
Yemen could be the desperate way for the Saudis to blow the P5+1 negotiations.
An Iranian civilian cargo ship bearing 2,500 tonnes of humanitarian aid and medical teams is due to dock in Yemen in the coming days. The vessel has first to pass through the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea – waters infested with Saudi and American warships, as well as Saudi F-15 warplanes scouring the sky above. Iran has already warned in no uncertain terms that any interference in the passage of its aid ship would constitute an act of war, which Iran will respond to.
Saudi rulers, with a Machiavellian streak, will be weighing up their options to do just that.